New Books

Recent Writing

Grass, Soil, Hope

I am very pleased to announce that my book Soil, Grass, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country will be published by Chelsea Green Press in early June.

I am equally pleased to announce that Michael Pollan has generously written a Foreword for my book. Here’s a quote: “Hope in a book about the environmental challenges we face in the 21st century is an audacious thing to promise, so I’m pleased to report that Courtney White delivers on it.”

It’s not in my nature to be self-promotional, but Chelsea Green wants me to starting spreading the word, so – you’ve been alerted! I’ll being doing more over the next four months, so you’ve been warned about that as well! In the meantime, I’ll try to explain what the book is about, though if you have been reading this column for a while then you probably have a good idea.

Soil, Grass, Hope tackles an increasingly anguished question: what can we do about the seemingly intractable challenges confronting us today, including climate change, global hunger, water scarcity, environmental stress, and economic instability?

The quick answers are: Build topsoil. Fix creeks. Eat organic.

Crazy? I thought so until I read a statement from Dr. Rattan Lal, an esteemed soil scientist, who said a mere 2% increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100% of all greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere. Wow! But what did he mean? How could it be accomplished? What would it cost? Was it even possible?

Yes, it is possible, as I discovered. Essential, in fact.

Right now, the only possibility of large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is through plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities. They include: enriching soil carbon, no-till farming, climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands, increasing biodiversity, and producing local food.

As I know from personal experience, these strategies have been demonstrated individually to be both practical and profitable.

In Soil, Grass, Hope, I bundle them into an economic and ecological whole with the aim of reducing atmospheric CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits for all living things. Soil is a huge natural sink for carbon dioxide. If we can draw increasing amounts carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely in the soil as life-giving and food-producing humus (the rich, dark soil of a garden), then we can significantly address all the multiple challenges in my anguished question.

The key is carbon. That’s because it is everywhere – it’s the soil beneath our feet, the plants that grow, the land we walk, the wildlife we watch, the livestock we raise, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the air we breathe. Carbon is the essential element of life. Without it we die; with the just right amounts we thrive; with too much we suffer. For eons, carbon has been a source of life and joy to the planet. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, stores, releases and recaptures biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up, including plants, animals and people.

In the last century or so, however, the carbon cycle has broken down at critical points, most importantly among our soils which have had their fertility eroded, depleted, and baked out of them by poor stewardship. Worse, carbon has become a source of woe to the planet and its inhabitants as excess amounts of it accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans. It’s all carbon. Climate change is carbon, hunger is carbon, money is carbon, politics is carbon, land is carbon, we are carbon. Which brings me to the hope:

We don’t have to invent anything. Over the past thirty years, all manner of new ideas and methods that put carbon back into the soil and reduce carbon footprints have been field-tested and proven to be practical and profitable. We already know how to graze livestock sustainably, grow organic food, create a local food system, fix creeks, produce local renewable energy, improve water cycles, grow grass on bare soil, coexist with wildlife, and generally build resilience on the land and in our lives.

It’s mostly low-tech. It’s sunlight, green plants, animals, rocks, mud, shovels, hiking shoes, windmills, trees, compost, and creeks. Some of the work requires specialized knowledge, such as herding livestock or designing an erosion-control structure in a creek, and some of it has high-tech components, such as solar panels or wind turbines, but most of Soil, Grass, Hope can be easily navigated by anyone.

One morning, I sat down at my dining room table and drew a map of every joyous, sustainable, resilient, regenerative, land-healing, carbon-building, climate-mitigating activity I could pull from my decades-long experience in conservation and sustainable agriculture, putting them into a single landscape. I intentionally left out boundaries, including property lines, political divisions, and geographical separations. There was no distinction on my map between public and private land, or between wild country and non-wild. It was all one map, all carbon – all one vision in which wolves, cattle, bats, organic farmers, biologists, artists, foxes, fish, cities, and ranchers all worked together.

You’re on the map. Everyone is, whether you live in a city, go to school, graze cattle, enjoy wildlife, grow vegetables, hike, fish, count grasses, draw, make music, fix creeks, or eat food – you’re on the map. You live in Soil, Grass, Hope. We all do. It’s not a mythical land, it exists – I’ve been there. I can be your guide.

For more see: www.chelseagreen,com/bookstore/item/grass_soil_hope

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  • Rancher Grady Grissom at Brandingnear Pueblo, CO
  • Organic Gardening ClassNazareth, Texas
  • Riparian Restoration on Comanche CreekCarson National Forest, New Mexico
  • J Bar L RanchCentennial Valley, Montana
  • Double Rainbow Over Bat Habitat Projecton Rowe Mesa, near Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Rancher Dennis Moroney Taking a Callnear Tombstone, Arizona
  • A Sustainable Family Farm in a National ParkDrake's Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore, California
  • Rancher Tom Sidwell on his restored grasslandsnear Tucumcari, New Mexico
  • Cattle Grazing Near Nuclear Power PlantDiablo Canyon, Central California
  • Workshop at the Chico Basin Ranchnear Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • These Fence Posts Rested on the Ground in 1935. What Happened?near Quemado, New Mexico
  • Which Side Was Grazed by Cattle? Which Side is Healthier?near Crowell, Texas
  • What's Wrong with this Picture? (hint: think like a creek)near Cerrososo Creek, Carson National Forest
  • Collaborative Hay Ride at Quivira Workshopnear Roswell, New Mexico
  • A Land Health Project on the Dry Cimarron Rivernear Folsom, New Mexico
  • A 'Poop and Stomp' on a Mine Tailing (note cattle on left)near Globe, Arizona
  • Draft horse farmer Walt Bernard at demonstrationJefferson County fairgrounds, Madras, Oregon
  • Farmer Colin Seis on Cropped Pasture (his idea) of Oats and Sheepnear Gulgon, New South Wales, Australia
  • Rancher John Wick Speaking to a Chinese DelegationMarin Carbon Project, near Nicasio, California
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The Mural

"Murals are large-scale paintings or pictures using a solid structure, such as a wall, as a canvas and are considered public art as they are often placed on buildings or structures. A muralist must have a competent sense of scale and a strong vision in order to create a work of art with any coherence." - wisegeek.com

I am endeavoring here to create a portrait of this remarkable moment in history, largely by focusing on the working lands of the American West. The mural includes my conservation activities, writing endeavors, archaeological work, and a big photographic project. I hope it pleases!  - Courtney

writings, images, ideas by courtney white - collage of pictures from different websites and publications